Awash in special effects that overshadow its underwhelming human leads, MERLIN offers a decidedly mundane take on the Arthurian legend. The film was produced as a miniseries for network television, and was released in an edited version on home video in 1998.
As paganism is rejected by the ruling class in favor of Christianity, a wizard named Merlin is created by evil Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson), in order to ensure that the citizenry will still believe in the Old Ways. As an adult, Merlin (Sam Neill) is recruited to help the current ruler, Lord
Vortigan (Rutger Hauer), in his war against Uther Pendragon (Mark Jax); in the meantime, Merlin is united with his true love Nimue (Isabella Rossellini). Alas, Nimue is to be sacrificed to a dragon, and despite Merlin's attempts to avert the tragedy, she ends up being terribly scarred.
Merlin is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake (Richardson). He uses the sword to kill Vortigan (whose evil he opposes), and then passes it onto Uther, the new king. But when Uther doesn't live up to Merlin's hopes--after he seduces the married Igraine (Rachel Colover) with
magic--Merlin imbeds Excalibur into a stone. The offspring of the illicit union between Uther and Igraine is Arthur (Paul Curran), who is tutored by Merlin, and eventually pulls the sword from the stone, thereupon becoming king. Meanwhile, Mab's gnome Frik (Martin Short) befriends Igraine's
daughter Morgan Le Fey (Helena Bonham Carter), and she eventually, unknowingly makes love to half-brother Arthur.
While Arthur builds Camelot and marries Guinevere (Lena Headley), Morgan gives birth to the villainous Mordred (Jason Done), who is versed in the Old Ways by Mab. Mordred then exposes Guinevere's adultery with Round Table knight Lancelot (Jeremy Sheffield), and in a final battle, Arthur and
Mordred kill each other. Afterward, Merlin returns Excalibur to the lake and destroys Mab by simply ignoring her. As an old man, he's reunited with Nimue.
The character of Merlin has been translated to the screen countless times, but here, he finally takes center stage. Strangely, outside of a generic love interest, nothing interesting has been added. Originally telecast as a four-hour miniseries (which did well in the ratings), the edited
home-video version delivers merely a few imaginative special effects and a talented troupe of actors attempting to breathe life into their stillborn roles. Dramatically flat, the script also takes major liberties with the legend (e.g., Queen Mab is borrowed from other early literature, and was
usually referred to as the nonhostile Queen of the Fairies).
The film's strength is due to Neill, who brings much-needed vulnerability and compassion to the title role. The remaining cast, however, comprises something of a mixed bag. John Gielgud appears for only a few seconds, Richardson hams it up as raspy puppetmistress Mab, and Bonham Carter rates as
one of the few cast members who seems comfortable in her role. As Mab's assistant, Short provides unnecessary comic shtick, and plays much of his role as an anachronistic swashbuckler.
Filmed in Wales, Scotland, and England, the film is indeed sumptuous on a visual level, even though the CGI effects are only intermittently successful, and the unsubtle performances would be perfectly at home at a modern-day Renaissance Faire. Given all of the resources at his disposal, it's
rather unfortunate that director Steve Barron (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES) is unable to make an exciting--and more importantly, original--film out of this potentially rousing yarn. (Violence.)
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- Released: 1998
- Rating: NR
- Review: Awash in special effects that overshadow its underwhelming human leads, MERLIN offers a decidedly mundane take on the Arthurian legend. The film was produced as a miniseries for network television, and was released in an edited version on home video in 199… (more)